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Jerry Brown to Redevelopment Agencies: You're Toast

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Photo Credit: Hector Amezcua via San Francisco Sentinel

Panic spread this week in development and planning circles around California as Jerry Brown announced the planned mass extinction of the state's 397 redevelopment agencies, claiming that $1.7B annually in property tax dollars is too much to support a bureaucracy whose functions can be returned to local government. It's budget time, and while everyone knows what policemen and firemen and teachers look like and do, urban planners don't have an image that springs readily to a voter's mind, except maybe stylish eyewear and black-on-black outfits. And like the police, planners have a bad reputation in some neighborhoods (Western Addition, anyone? Portsmouth Square?) This may have been Brown's first mis-step as governor, blindsiding both agencies and legislators after days of private meetings with other stakeholders in the budget mess. The League of California Cities voiced its concerns in a press release:

City officials throughout California are alarmed about this proposal because redevelopment is the state's biggest job creation program, stimulating the economy at the state and local levels. Redevelopment contributes more than $40 billion annually to California's economy in the generation of goods and services. It also supports more than 300,000 jobs and generates more than $2 billion in state and local taxes annually.Meanwhile, with Brown looking to cleanse the state of employed urbanists by July 1, agencies across the state put through over $1.5B in projects over the Martin Luther King weekend. Just in case. Redevelopment agencies are the grandchildren of the political reform movements of the 1920's, especially in New York, where Robert Moses conceived the public benefit corporation, an entity that could issue bonds, wield eminent domain, and build projects without public oversight or the legendary corruption of local city halls. This didn't mean much until a decade later, when the Roosevelt Administration launched the New Deal, and New York benefited by having a mechanism in place that could both raise money through bond issues and provide huge projects for job creation. After World War II, the scenario and agendas shifted slightly- jobs were needed, but as white servicemen fled the cities for the suburbs created by the highway system, inner cities became "blighted", which coincided with the huge migration of blacks, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans into urban centers. And so Urban Renewal was born, and in California, the redevelopment agencies were conceived to manage it (although not as public benefit corporations.) San Francisco got Justin Herman and a new layer of bureaucracy.

In the 1960's, too late to do anything about demolished neighborhoods but a step in the right direction, the concepts of adaptive re-use and historic preservation came into being- in San Francisco at Ghiradelli Square. Fast-forward to the 21st Century where the agencies are working within both the rubrics of adaptive re-use and former industrial wastelands like Mission Bay. It's a big family, and like any good family drama, expect the next few years to be soap-operatic.
· Press Release [League of California Cities]
· Gov. Jerry Brown asks cities to help fix California budget [LA Times]
· Redevelopment Agencies Lie in Cost-Cutters’ Sights [Bay Citizen/NY Times]